What is left to say about the hamburger? It’s the quintessential American sandwich. It used to cost a nickel. Now, you can get a gold-flecked burger on Wall Street for $175. At Fleur de Lys in Mandalay Bay, Hubert Keller will sell you a foie-gras and black-truffle-stuffed Kobe burger, served on a brioche truffle bun and garnished with a truffle sauce—for $5,000. Earlier this year, In-N-Out’s cheeseburger finally crossed the $2 threshold, and the Double-Double the $3 threshold. The times may have changed, but the burger is still America. And as ever in the land of the free, the points of view on what makes a great burger are as endless as the axes of debate. Traditional or experimental? Highbrow or bottom dollar? Pickles?
One particularly vital issue, it seems to us, is the question of choice. Morally speaking (ahem), how much input should the customer have into the preparation of the burger she is to eat? As Americans, we usually feel the need for some degree of control over our burger’s destiny, even if that means just choosing between the Steakburger or the Hickoryburger. More often, though, there are toppings or temperatures to consider. Five Guys, the quasi-upscale Mid-Atlantic fast-food chain that has now expanded to 48 states, offers its 15 toppings all for free—but cooks every single burger well done, period, as most fast food restaurants do. Father’s Office, a favorite son of the Los Angeles high-end-burger royal family, infamously does not allow any substitutions whatsoever on its one burger offering—but sometimes they’ll ask how done you want it. It’s the burger as benevolent dispensation of a magnanimous authoritarian.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Counter, a California-based chain with a relatively new location in Pasadena. The Counter is extreme in its commitment to democracy. When you sit down, you are handed a clipboard with a five-step rubric for choosing your meat, its size and vessel, a cheese, toppings and sauce. Filling it out is like casting a ballot. For freedom. Or mathematical freedom, anyway: The website claims 312,120 different combinations are possible.
Have a look at the menu here—it’s easier to read it than to read about it. A few things to note: 1) The beef is fine to good, not bad, not great. They suggest ordering it medium rare, which seems right; it’s not strong enough to eat rare, but not so mediocre that you’ll want to cook it into a substrate; 2) As it says in small print in Step #1, burger weights are after cooking, which is a laudable policy, especially since the weight determines the base price; 3) Regular toppings beyond the initial free four are available for 50 cents apiece; all premium toppings are $1, as is extra cheese; 4) Unless your other toppings present a unified front and forbid it, you should almost certainly get a fried egg on your burger; 5) Personally, we think you should consider picking your toppings before your cheese, as it is often easier to match one cheese to four toppings than the other way around. Sometimes, however, a cheese will pick out its own toppings. On one recent visit, for example, we rapidly settled upon the Danish blue, which quickly drew to itself carrot strings, dried cranberries, grilled onions and sprouts; 6) Speaking of moral imperatives, there are those, including a frequent dining companion of ours, who would say it is one’s duty to make a selection in all the categories; if one does not order at least four regular toppings, say, one is defiling the freedom to choose; 7) Like the beef, the topping ingredients are good but not great. Everything tastes the way it’s supposed to. Competent, dependable, reliable, solid as the Sierras, with flash and flair left to the customer.
There are other things on the menu besides the burger, but they are just that—other. Some you can totally ignore—if you want a BLT, go somewhere else. What’s left are the usual vegetable and fried accessories: a side salad, chili, fried dill pickle chips, crispy onion strings. Of these accessories, only the french fry permutations aren’t basically just a burger topping on the side. We’ve enjoyed the chili fries—meaty, satisfying, perfectly ordinary.
To drink there is soda, wine and beer, as well as shakes, malts, and floats. On tap is a small mix of industrial and craft brews, reasonably priced (we’ll always be happy to see Arrogant Bastard for $5.50 a pint). A notable exception to The Counter’s near uniformity of quality is the shakes, which are downright excellent. Sitting at the counter one day, we were treated to a sample of the shake-master’s tinkering with raspberry and chocolate: flavorful and creamy, sweet but not too sweet, just the right thickness and texture. It was easily one of the better shakes we’ve had in the San Gabriel Valley.
One final note about the burger menu: Every day there’s a “market selection” in each category—a meat, cheese, topping, sauce or bun not on the regular menu. It’s an idea meant to create the illusion of farmers’ market–fresh ingredients; the word “local” is used liberally. We have our doubts. For meat, it’s usually a fish of some kind. The fish is probably just fine, but chain restaurants and sea creatures are not a combination we are fond of. And besides, there’s a larger issue: The Counter is not just about democracy, it’s about industrially streamlined democracy, and it has the décor to match: glossy metal chairs and tables, a bright, smooth interior—like the whole place sprung fully formed from the factory floor of some Mojave machine shop. The “build your own burger” rubric is as much a flowchart as it is a menu. Contaminating that purity of form with “fresh” variables almost seems a shame.
And we have nothing against machine shops. We’ll cast a vote for any low-key place where you can enjoy a robust burger and a decent brew. That The Counter is such a place makes it a welcome addition to the Pasadena burger scene.
140 Shoppers Ln., Pasadena, 626.440.1008, thecounterburger.com. L & D daily.